John D. Bruno’s entrepreneurial journey in many ways has played out like a Dickens novel and John Denver song. After decades of trial and error he eventually built an 8-figure business by recovering precious metals from scrap catalytic converters using industry leading systems he developed and built.
Formally a certified professional engineer (PE), he has held the engineering profession’s highest standard of competence and holds three U.S. Patents.
Once an avid hiker his journey to success, which began in Colorado, encountered Rocky mountain highs and valley lows.
Graduating from Colorado School of Mines, the top institution in the world for mineral and mining engineering, Bruno earned a B.S. Extractive Metallurgy & Mineral Processing and an M.S. in Metallurgy.
“I ended up going to that school, and I fell in love with metallurgy. It was so fun. I was working at a mining company, Amax Extractive Metallurgy Research and Development, but wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to leverage my knowledge and expertise in metallurgy. In my search, I came across some automotive catalysts a friend sent to me. My friend said, ‘This stuff is starting to hit the junk yards, and there’s platinum in it. Can you figure out how to process it?’” Bruno chronicled.
He recounted “I worked out a process on the bench, and built a pilot plant. Then I quit my job and started a business where I set up a refinery in Colorado. I started refining the catalysts, and got involved in the industry in 1985. I had everything going for me. My process gave me a huge competitive advantage.”
The Best of Times
“We bought a building in Golden, Colorado, set up an operation for the refining process I developed, for extracting platinum from the catalysts. That was a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day a week operation.
“We formed a public company, US Platinum/ Westminco Inc., and were one of the highest trading stocks on the Vancouver Exchange. It was just insane.
“We were running it, and we were getting material from various converter people in the country. There wasn’t too many, back then.”
Catalytic converters have been required on most U.S. gasoline-powered vehicles starting with the 1975 model year and contain the precious metals platinum, palladium and rhodium. These metals reduce emissions of three harmful compounds found in car exhaust and are commodities traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX).
NYMEX is the world’s largest physical commodity futures exchange and has two divisions: the NYMEX Division, which is home to the energy, platinum and palladium markets, and the COMEX Division, where metals like gold, silver and copper and the FTSE 100 index options are traded.
The Worst of Times
“We had great hopes, because we could see the importance of recycling platinum group metals from catalysts. But the company was started with some partners that I probably shouldn’t have been in business with.
“I should have done a little more due diligence and been a little more selective about the people I was dealing with.
“After all the financial problems we had, and the missteps, we had to close the business” said Bruno.
He Had Everything
“At that point, I had been indoctrinated to this industry.
“I had a young family and was doing different consulting work and projects.”
He Had Nothing
“My wife said, ‘You’re like an actor. You’re only as good as your last gig.’ I made a deal with her that if my latest, greatest venture didn’t work out, which was a platinum mine in Wyoming, I would bite the bullet and go work for a company. Well, it didn’t work out.”
The Season of Light
Determined not to wallow in his sorrows Bruno outlined “That’s when I went to my friends in New Jersey that were big suppliers of catalysts. I was refining material for them, and had developed a relationship with them. I came to them and said, ‘If I work with you, and we incorporate some of my technology into your business, we can really grow this’.”
The company he worked for was A-1 Specialized Services. Bruno designed, erected, operated and maintained four sampling systems for automotive catalyst, handling 20,000 catalytic converters per day.
These improvements helped the company to open other markets, increase production capabilities and facilitate the growth in annual sales from $25 million to over $1 billion.
“We did grow, although they didn’t share equity with me” Bruno disclosed.
The Spring of Hope
Desiring to have equity in a business, he established Key Engineering Solutions LLC in 2004. He started his business as a vehicle to do design and development work, engineer and build machinery for the processing of catalytic converters and sampling and analysis.
“In 2005 Key Engineering designed and built a sampling operation for Nippon PGM America Inc, which was the joint venture between DOWA Metals & Mining Co., Ltd, Toyota Tsusho America, Inc, and Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo K.K.
“After the construction and the system was complete, they wanted me to stay on as general manager. I was there for five years as general manager. Then I left Nippon to develop the converter collection part of my business” said Bruno.
Bruno started to buy catalytic converters off eBay. That’s where he met Mike Crosby, an automotive specialist, who lived near him. Crosby sold catalytic converters to Bruno and noticed that they both lived in the same general area. Instead of shipping the converters to Bruno, Crosby asked if he could deliver them in person.
The two formed a friendship and Bruno later hired Crosby to be his right-hand man at Key Engineering Solutions. With Crosby’s help Bruno began to build Key Engineering Solutions into a thriving catalyst recovering business.
Market conditions would change after more players entered the market, causing margins to shrink. Shrinking margins then led to consolidations within the industry.
After building Key Engineering Solutions into an 8-figure a year business, mostly by word of mouth, Bruno’s vision of growing considerably would require deeper financial backing.
“Years ago, you could have had a good 10% margin or more. Like a lot of industries now, it’s matured from the Wild, Wild West to a very technical, very mature industry. It’s a pretty competitive environment. The more competitive, the more efficient and well-funded you have to be” Bruno noted.
The Epoch of Belief
He approached DOWA Metals and Mining, a wholly owned subsidiary of DOWA Holdings Co., LTD, with a joint venture proposal and the two companies formed Key Metal Refining LLC.
DOWA Holdings was founded in 1884 at Kosaka mine, Akita, is headquartered in Tokyo, Japan and has annual revenues exceeding $4 billion.
Key Engineering Solutions’ customers, assets, and liabilities were transferred to Key Metal Refining LLC, which is jointly owned by DOWA Metals & Mining and Key Engineering Solutions.
Bruno said of the new venture “This partnership is great because DOWA has been hugely committed to this industry for a long time. They’ve invested in world-class smelters and have superior refining capacity at their Nippon PGM operation in Kosaka, Japan. But they have not marketed well in the United States. Key Metal Refining gives them the opportunity to extend their reach here in the U.S.
“We probably have the most efficient way of handling, processing and identifying material & getting it all the way to final metal.”
“DOWA’s smelting operation is the best in the world. And I know the most cost effective ways to handle and analyze the material. In a competitive environment, it comes down to the most cost-effective company” Bruno articulated.
The Age of Wisdom
About lessons learned Bruno said “One thing I learned is that I should have developed the business from the ground up…from buying the units and developing that, rather than from the top down, where you’re refining the platinum, and then trying to get the material to feed your system.
“You don’t need a better mousetrap, you just need more mice. You really need to develop the whole market, and the whole flow. I think that was a painful lesson, and I was stubborn to learn over many years. When I did, that’s when I refocused my effort on buying catalytic converters.
“Now, working with DOWA we’re in the position to vertically integrate from collection all the way through to final marketing of platinum group metal.”
More information about Bruno’s current venture can be found at KeyMetalRefining.com.